Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Sun Stood Still

Some time ago I mentioned in passing a saying of Leonardo da Vinci's: "nothing can be loved unless it is first known." I speculated about the veracity behind the remark, arriving at my own conclusion:

I used to think that Leonardo, being an invert, had got it backwards, that nothing can be known unless it is loved. Now I know that there are few things more irreconcilable than love and knowledge. But it is a beautiful thought - and perhaps all the more beautiful for being so untrue.

Despite his growing fame, thanks largely to a silly work of fiction implicating him in a ridiculous historical conspiracy, I have always had the feeling that Leonardo was a failure. Only twenty of his works are extant, and some of them are unfinished and/or in great decay. The recent "discovery" of the possible presence of Leonardo's fresco “The Battle of Anghiari”, that was believed lost for centuries, on a wall behind Giorgio Vasari’s “The Battle of Marciano" in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence has once again put the great painter in the spotlight.

In his groundbreaking essay on Leonardo, Sigmund Freud examined what he saw were the two great impulses of Leonardo's genius, that of the artist and the investigator:

Although he left masterpieces of the art of painting, while his scientific discoveries remained unpublished and unused, the investigator in him has never quite left the artist, often it has severely injured the artist and in the end it has perhaps suppressed the artist altogether. According to Vasari, Leonardo reproached himself during the last hour of his life for having insulted God and men because he has not done his duty to his art.

Freud mentions the very fresco is now being debated in Florence: "The picture of the cavalry battle of Anghiari, which in competition with Michelangelo he began to paint later on a wall of the Sala de Consiglio in Florence and which was also left in an unfinished state." Because of Leonardo's deliberate working methods, he abjured the customary fresco techniques, which demanded that the painter work quickly while the background is still moist, Leonardo opted for oils instead, which is the most significant reason that his "Last Supper" is in such sorry condition today. If he used the same technique for his fresco of the Battle of Anghiari, it may have suffered the same fate.

Freud observes that "It seems here as if a peculiar interest, that of the experimenter, at first reinforced the artistic, only later to damage the art production." Freud comes to the conclusion that two at first complimentary but eventually opposing character traits in Leonardo - that of the artist and of the scientist (or "investigator"), with the latter eventually usurping the former, explains his inability to complete so many of commissions:

For the combination of manifold talents in the same person was not unusual in the times of the Renaissance; to be sure Leonardo himself furnished one of the most splendid examples of such persons. . . . The turning of his interest from his art to science which increased with age must have also been responsible for widening the gap between himself and his contemporaries. All his efforts with which, according to their opinion, he wasted his time instead of diligently filling orders and becoming rich as perhaps his former classmate Perugino, seemed to his contemporaries as capricious playing, or even caused the, to suspect him of being in the service of the "black arts". We who know him from his sketches understand him better. . . . The effect that this had on his paintings was that he disliked to handle the brush, he painted less and what was more often the case, the things he began were mostly left unfinished: he cared less and less for the future of his works.

Freud traced the origins of Leonardo's dual impulses to the saying that I quoted above:

In an essay of the Conferenze Florentine the utterances if Leonardo are cited, which show his confession of faith and furnish the key to his character. "Nessuna cosa si può amare nè odiare, se prima no si ha cognition di quella." That is: One has no right to love or to hate anything if one has not acquired a thorough knowledge of its nature. And the same is repeated by Leonardo in a passage of the Treaties on the Art of Painting where he seems to defend himself against the accusation of irreligiousness:

"But such censurers might better remain silent. For that action is the manner of showing the workmaster so many wonderful things, and this is the way to love so great a discoverer. For, verily great love springs from great knowledge of the beloved object, and if you little know it you will be able to love it only little or not at all."

The value of these utterances of Leonardo cannot be found in that they impart to us an important psychological fact, for what they maintain is obviously false, and Leonardo must have known this as well as we do. It is not true that people refrain from loving or hating until they have studied and became familiar with the nature of the object to whom they wish to give these affects, on the contrary they love impulsively and are guided by emotional motives which have nothing to do with cognition and whose affects are weakened, if anything, by thought and reflection.

Leonardo only could have implied that the love practiced by people is not of the proper and unobjectionable kind, one should so love as to hold back the affect and to subject it to mental elaboration, and only after it has stood the test of the intellect should free play be given to it. And we thereby understand that he wishes to tell us that this was the case with himself and that it would be worth the effort of everybody else to treat love and hatred as he himself does.

And it seems that in his case it was really so. His affects were controlled and subjected to the investigation impulse, he neither loved nor hated, but questioned himself whence does that arise, which he was to love or hate, and what does it signify, and thus he was at first forced to appear indifferent to good and evil, to beauty and ugliness. During this work of investigation love and hatred threw off their designs and uniformly changed into intellectual interest. As a matter of fact Leonardo was not dispassionate, he did not lack the divine spark which is the mediate or immediate motive power - il primo motore - of all human activity. He only transmuted his passion into inquisitiveness. He then applied himself to study with that persistence, steadiness, and profundity which comes from passion, and on
the height of the psychic work, after the cognition was won, he allowed the long checked affect to break loose and to flow off freely like a branch of a stream, after it has accomplished its work. At the height of his cognition when he could examine a big part of the whole he was seized with a feeling of pathos, and in ecstatic words he praised the grandeur of that part of creation which he studied, or - in religious
cloak - the greatness of the creator.

Solmi thinks that Leonardo's investigations started with his art, he tried to investigate the attributes and laws of light, of color, of shades and of perspective so as to be sure of becoming a master in the imitation of nature and to be able to show the way to others. It is probable that already at that time he overestimated the value of this knowledge for the artist. Following the guide-rope of the painter's need, he was then driven further and further to investigate the objects of the art of painting, such as animals and plants, and the proportions of the human body, and to follow the path from their exterior to their interior structure and biological functions, which really also express themselves in their appearance and should be depicted in art. And finally he was pulled along by this overwhelming desire until the connection was torn from the demands of his art, so that he discovered the general laws of mechanics and divined the history of the stratification and fossilization of the Arno-valley, until he could enter in his book with capital letters the cognition: "Il sole non si move" (The sun does not move).

As Leonardo understood better, perhaps, than anyone in history, there is no such thing as useless knowledge. When Socrates had fathered his friends and followers together to witness his last moments before he drank the hemlock, he heard a flute player playing a beautiful melody and he stopped to learn how to play it himself. A member of the gathering cried out to Socrates, "Why do you waste your precious time learning to play a tune when you are about to die?"

"So that I will know it before I die," Socrates replied.

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